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Mt Merapi & warning of disaster

Pete Wilton
Today saw Mount Merapi in Indonesia erupt again in events that have seen almost 200 killed and more than 360,000 people flee their homes.

So why do so many people end up at risk from such natural hazards? And is there anything scientists can do to help limit the human cost?

I asked Kate Donovan, from Oxford University's Department of Earth Sciences, about her experiences studying responses to Mount Merapi and about research at Oxford into hazard communication...

OxSciBlog: What are the challenges involved in communicating risks from natural hazards?
Kate Donovan: A proactive and prepared society is likely to be more resilient to a hazard event. But in order for that community to be prepared they must firstly accept that they are at risk and secondly have the resources available to be prepared. But many societies are vulnerable because they are poor and don't have access to these resources. Tragically, between 1991-2005, over 90% of deaths resulting from natural hazards occurred in developing countries.

How people perceive their own risk will influence their motivations and actions before and during an event. It is not a simple case of providing more information to at risk communities but instead requires a complex and long term change in culture towards the hazard.

Another important element of risk perception and communicating risk is trust. If civil authorities or scientists are not trusted then risk communication will break down. Trust relies on various elements including local culture, political history, the mismanagement of past events and false alarms. In Indonesia past political turmoil has brought extreme suffering and therefore the population tend to be suspicious of authority. During a visit to Mt Merapi volcano last year, local people told me that they would never evacuate because they did not trust the local authorities, indeed some villagers would rather rely on their own knowledge of the volcano and their traditional warning signs.

OSB: What did you learn from your work on Mt Merapi?
KD: The people who live high on the slopes of Mt Merapi are at extreme risk from the regular eruptions that occur at this very active volcano. The current eruption is an example of this volcano's potential for destruction and the local populations’ vulnerability. The villagers living on the volcano have a great respect for Mt Merapi and many (especially in the more isolated regions) believe that the volcano is home to supernatural creatures that have the power to control eruptions. These creatures can also provide warnings before an eruption and therefore protect certain communities, if those communities respect the creatures. The rich culture linking the people to the volcano provides a coping mechanism, a way of explaining and living with the dangers they face.

In the news at the moment there are images of people being rescued from the volcano. Most of those who were initially killed or are badly injured were most likely returning to their homes and villages during the evacuation to tend to abandoned livestock. These extremely poor communities rely on subsistence farming and their livestock are all they have. Returning during the day to their homes to collect grass for their cattle is considered entirely acceptable. These people have to balance the risk between definitely losing their income if their livestock starve or possibly losing everything in an eruption. It is so sad that these wonderful, intelligent and kind people are now homeless and suffering.

OSB: How did these experiences influence your current research?
KD: My experiences at Mt Merapi were life changing. Living with those who have so little and yet fed and housed me for months was humbling and made me even more determined to have a career in disaster risk reduction. So after completing my PhD at the University of Plymouth in January this year I searched for research opportunities that focussed on practical interdisciplinary opportunities. I was delighted to find a project within the Department of Earth Sciences here at the University of Oxford that is actively engaging with local authorities to reduce the impact of flood hazard. My current research is focused much closer to home as I am currently working on Project FOSTER that aims to bridge the gap between local authorities in the UK and flood science.

OSB: Why is it vital to combine physical & social science approaches?
KD: Disasters occur at the interface of society and nature, in other words a disaster does not occur unless a hazard interacts with society resulting in death or economic loss. Therefore in order to reduce the risks people face it is essential that disaster research explores both sciences. It is easier to consider interdisciplinary research as focussing on finding a solution using the best available methods from both the physical and social sciences. With a growing global population and the potential threat of climate change increasing the number of extreme hazard events there is a growing need for researchers with a fluency in both sciences and universities across the world are slowly responding to this.

Various institutes have been created to bring disciplines together and the University of Oxford is a good example of this with large initiatives such as The Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment and also the Oxford Martin School, but also smaller enterprises such as The Hazards Forum.

OSB: How do you hope hazard communication research at Oxford will develop?
KD: A challenge for any institution is cross-disciplinary communication and collaboration. Universities have conventionally created disciplinary silos and so topics that span disciplines, such as hazard and disaster research, tend to fall between fields. But recently, with a move from research funders towards more accountable research and communicating science to a wider audience, Universities must encourage interdisciplinary collaborations and effective dissemination of results.

At Oxford there are many initiatives that encourage collaborations and one of these is the new Hazards Forum that aims to bring researches together from across the university who are interested in hazards and disaster research. This Forum provides an opportunity for communication, collaboration and learning between subjects and was founded jointly by colleagues in the Department of Earth Sciences and The School of Geography and the Environment. Hopefully hazard communication between subjects will encourage practical and effective research that will improve the quality of life of those living in hazard regions.

Dr Kate Donovan is based at Oxford University's Department of Earth Sciences.